A dozen Western Pa. health systems pledge to comply with vaccine mandate for hospital workers

UPMC’s top doctor affirmed Thursday that Pennsylvania’s largest health system and nongovernment employer will comply with a newly issued federal mandate that all health care workers get vaccinated for covid-19 by early January, in line with prior pledges by competing medical providers in recent months.

Dr. Donald Yealy, UPMC’s chief medical officer and chair of emergency medicine, joined physician leaders representing hospitals and health systems across Western Pennsylvania in a joint letter in support of the employee vaccine rule issued late last week by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services.

The federal mandate requires all health care workers receive two doses of a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or one dose of a Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine — no later than Jan. 4. That means those getting the two-shot vaccines must get their first dose by Dec. 6.

Exceptions can be made for those with documented religious or medical exemptions.

“Collectively, we and our organizations will fully comply with this new CMS rule,” states the joint letter signed by a dozen doctor executives as part of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Chief Medical Officer Consortium. “We know the vaccines are safe and effective, and we know that widespread vaccination is one key step in controlling this pandemic.”

In addition to UPMC, the letter also was signed by chief medical officers from Allegheny Health Network, Excela Health, Butler Health, Heritage Valley, St. Clair Health, Washington Hospital, Conemaugh Health, Penn Highlands Healthcare, Indiana Regional Medical Center, ACMH Hospital and the Pittsburgh VA Health System.

The new requirement, “coupled with other new federal vaccine mandates, will spur more to get this protection,” the consortium’s letter states.

“Our health care teams serve all in need, and a broader vaccination uptake will help them and those they care for by limiting the harm from this illness,” the letter continued. “We want all in our communities to be safer and healthier.”

CMS issued the interim final rule last Friday after a public comment period that ran through the end of October. In addition to hospitals, the mandate applies to health care workers at skilled nursing facilities, outpatient rehabilitation offices, community and rural health clinics, mental health providers, physical and speech-language therapy offices and kidney dialysis providers.

The rule’s announcement immediately sparked backlash from some providers around the country grappling with severe staffing shortages who are concerned about meeting the deadline less than two months away. Nursing home employee vaccination rates, in particular, hover closer to 60%, with some facilities not yet reaching the 50% mark, federal data show.

It’s unclear precisely what the process will be for local health care workers who don’t get vaccinated by the federal deadline, such as when they might risk termination.

A spokesperson for UPMC — which employs more than 92,000 employees statewide and more than 45,000 in the Pittsburgh region — said that the health system still is “carefully reviewing the federal guidelines and thoughtfully planning the approach that will best serve our employees, patients and members.”

“We follow all government requirements and will continue our vaccine advocacy and outreach efforts and make vaccines easily and readily available for all,” UPMC officials said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon. “UPMC continues to evaluate how to further strengthen our protocols, particularly in settings with highly vulnerable patient populations.”

Some providers already had issued their own employee vaccination mandates.

Excela Health began eyeing such an internal requirement back in mid-July.

Allegheny Health Network and parent company Highmark Health announced that they had expected all employees to be vaccinated for covid-19 by the end of September. As of August, about 73% of AHN’s 21,000 employees in the Pittsburgh area had been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“Highmark Health will continue to require attestation of vaccination status by all Highmark Health, Highmark Inc. (insurance) and Allegheny Health Network employees,” according to a statement sent by a Highmark official Thursday night. “Highmark Health is required, as a federal contractor and participant in the Medicare and Medicaid program, to require all team members to be vaccinated by the established deadlines.”

Highmark added that it “reserves the right to modify this policy at any time to adapt to changing circumstances and business needs.”

Nationwide, the federal rule applies to more than 17 million health care workers and more than 76,000 health care providers.

“There is no question that staff, across any health care setting, who remain unvaccinated pose both direct and indirect threats to patient safety and population health,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a Sept. 9 statement first announcing the looming mandate. “Ensuring safety and access to all patients, regardless of their entry point into the health care system, is essential.”

More than 2,500 hospitals — 4 in 10 nationwide — already had vaccination requirements in place for their workforce when the rule was announced, the Biden administration reported. Mandates spanned all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

Allegheny | Coronavirus | Health | Local | Pittsburgh | Regional | Top Stories